How about a national commission for hurt sentiments? – ( My monthly column in Governance Now)

This 23rd August was a sad day. We lost a great writer who was rooted enough in his tradition to interrogate aspects of it with courage and affection, and who was modern enough to challenge the dominant, Euro-centric conceptions of modernity, even while upholding its universal aspects and values both in his creative writing and in his role as a public intellectual. He was openly sceptical of much of ‘Indian writing in English’; and was one of the few non-English writers to be short-listed for the Man Booker award. His Praneshacharya (the hero of the novel, Samskara) typified the traditional/ modern Indian’s search of the moral core of his/her ‘Indian-ness’.  In his long career, U.R. Anantamurthy performed what the Hindi poet Muktibodh had described as Sabhyta Samiksha – a civilizational critique.

Apart from the loss of one of our finest writers and a noble soul, what makes the 23rd even sadder was that the demise of such a figure was ‘celebrated’ by the bursting of fire-crackers by some who wanted to punish him, even in death, for his forthright criticism of the politics of hatred and violence.

Like any reflective human being, Ananthamurthy’s ideas invite debate and criticism and there is no denying his critics their right of disagreeing with any of his ideas or expressions. The question is, whether this disagreement is to be articulated in the grammar of rational argument or in the rhetoric (and attendant violence) of ‘hurt sentiments’?  The matter assumes larger significance than the case of one individual, as we are fast turning our democracy, which is rooted in humane values, into a virulent mobocracy of hurt sentiments.

Those celebrating the demise of Anantamurthy quite expectedly belong to the ‘Hindutvawadi’ groups. The defence, if any, from the Hindutva forces is likely to be on equally expected lines: there was nothing organised or ordered from above, what happened was just ‘local’ and purely ‘spontaneous’. The point is:  this ‘spontaneity’ is much more ominous than a controlled spectacle. A few days back, I published a short story (in Hindi, the language of my creative expression). The story fantasises about a present wherein the discourse of hurt sentiments is systematically turned into pervasive social common sense under the supervision of NACOHUS (National Commission of Hurt Sentiments). In such a setup, people are perennially afraid and unconcerned about any suffering while society marches on following the glittering path of ‘development.’ Let us face it – Nacohus is not merely a fantasy, but a distinct possibility emerging out of the current depravity of thought and the pervasiveness of the discourse and politics of ‘hurt sentiments’.

Given their world-view, the Hindutva forces are more inclined than most others towards stigmatising their critics and opponents. They are also more persistent and systematic in persecuting chosen targets and victims in myriad ways. One can recall many names in this context from Romila Thapar to Habib Tanvir to M. F.  Hussian, and now having tasted success in their ‘pulp the books’ campaign, the Batras of the world are much emboldened under the present political dispensation.

However, I would like to leave aside the extreme Right for the moment, and focus on the role of those who claim a commitment to liberal democracy and take pride in the legacy of fundamental rights enshrined in the constitution? Is it not true that M. F. Hussain was subjected to well organised, country-wide legal harassment by extremist elements while the Congress was in power, and the ‘Padma-Vibhushan’ painter was forced to go into a self-imposed exile, getting no support from the party of Jawaharlal Nehru, or for that matter the party of Rammanohar Lohia?

‘Taslima must fall to her knees and apologise’- this was not a rant of some Maulana, but a statement from a Congress minister for Information and Broadcasting keen on furnishing his ‘secular’ and ‘progressive’ credentials by pandering to minority communalism. Under the same worthy Minister, the film ‘Da Vinci Code’ was pre-screened for the approval of Church ‘elders’. Such an act of ‘secularism’ did not take place even in Italy, the seat of Roman Catholic Church, or in any other Christian majority country. In this context, it is not surprising that the late Rajiv Gandhi took pride in the fact of India being the ‘first’ to ban the ‘The Satanic Verses’ by Salman Rushdie.

The same Salman Rushdie was supposed to attend the Jaipur Literary festival in 2012. Of course, the state government under the competent and politically smart Congress CM Ashok Gehlot did not ban his participation, but merely ‘advised’ him to not visit. The ‘advice’ was put in practice by informing the organizers that the state police could not guarantee Rushdie’s security. Rushdie was not allowed, because his mere presence at the festival (which incidentally he had attended in an earlier edition) was likely to ‘hurt the sentiments’ of the believers. So particular was the government about its benign advice that some authors were booked for the ‘offence’ of reading excerpts from the undesirable author at the festival, and of course, no action was taken against those who ‘purified’ the venue by offering namaz on the last day of the festival! I can personally vouch for the eager expectation and then despondency among the participants at the abdication of responsibility by the State Government, as I had the privilege to deliver the key-note address to this edition of the festival, which was focussed on the Bhakti and Sufi literature. I wondered and continue to wonder: would the secular-liberal congress have advised Kabir also to keep away from this festival and refrain from hurting the religious sentiments of the people?

The congress can also congratulate itself for adding section 66A to the IT act, and can derive satisfaction that after the Lok-Sabha elections, the Kerala Police under Congress leadership has been Numero Uno in booking those who dare say anything ‘offensive’ to the sensibilities of the admirers of the Prime Minister Modi on social media, and even in college magazines.

All this is not merely ‘appeasement’. These actions were a perversion of the idea of democracy and subversion of its functioning. Democracy is by far the best system of social and political organisation, because it is about choice based on informed debate and deliberation. It is distinct from mob-mentality as it not just about numbers and their manipulation but about division of powers amongst various organs of State. It is about the autonomy of individuals and institutions. It is about rule of law, as well as about the norms of civilised behaviour.

Freedom of expression, an essential pillar of democracy, is not some middle class luxury, but a crucial guarantee of an individual’s right to record his or her will. It is about the right to alternative point of view on any given matter. Far from being a privilege claimed by chattering classes, freedom of expression and social respect for creativity is a pre-condition for a truly humane society. The rhetoric of hurt sentiments and its uses for populist politics is bound to turn nightmares of the NACOHUS kind into reality sooner than we might expect

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